The 2018 Natrona County football season started on a chilly mid-November 2017 afternoon when head coach Steve Harshman started planning the itinerary for state championship day 2018.
Harshman was driven to do so that early because of what transpired mere hours before. The Mustangs arrived late in Laramie for the 2017 state championship, fell behind during warm-ups and even emerged out of the locker room halfway through the National Anthem. Natrona County was also late to the opening kickoff as Sheridan returned it for a touchdown. The Broncs went on to win 28-14.
Shortly after making his schedule for Nov. 10, 2018, a full year in advance, Harshman wrote an apology letter to his son, Jesse, the Mustangs’ quarterback. The thought of which still brought the head coach on the verge of tears a year later.
“You get so into this thing and you get pushing so hard and you think more, more, more,” Harshman said. “And more is not always better, more is just more. And so we probably overdid it last year. Kids got here and we were late. They were tired, and that’s a coaching thing.”
The Mustangs followed that itinerary to a tee before kickoff of the 2018 Wyoming State High School Class 4A Football Championship. Harshman planned on the Mustangs pulling up to War Memorial Stadium at 12:20. They arrived at exactly 12:20. They continued to follow the plan for 3 more hours, just before kickoff. While neither team scored in the first quarter, Natrona County scored three consecutive touchdowns in the second quarter to hold a 21-0 lead, which eventually morphed into a 28-14 final.
That gave Natrona County its 18th football championship in program history and its first since 2014.
The Mustangs won on the strength of defense and special teams. Senior captain linebacker Chase Brachtenbach, a three-year starter who missed the championship game his sophomore year with injury, finished with five tackles and a pass break-up. Even he attributed this win, the breakthrough after two runner-up finishes, to his coaches.
“Just got to thank it to our coaches,” Brachtenbach said. “Our defensive coordinator (Tyrone Fittje) works his butt off, he gives us everything we need to be able to do it. And we just go out there and play as hard as we can and that’s what happens.”
He anchored a defense that allowed an average of 206.4 yards per game and gave up 298 against Sheridan in the championship game. The Mustangs, on the flip side, had just 256 yards. That’s partly because they played with a short field and because of turnovers.
A blocked punt return led to junior running back Dante Wallace’s opening 9-yard touchdown run. Senior Kade Stoner then jumped an out route and returned it 26 yards for a score less than 2 minutes before senior Jordan Bertagnole once again blocked a punt. The ball rolled toward the sidelines and senior Tehl Campbell found the live ball and ran it in for a touchdown from the 10.
Even Campbell knew there was something more at work than just the 11 players in orange on the field.
“It was just hard work, desire and great coaching,” Campbell said. “We could not have been put in better position. From the beginning of August until now we put in the most work and we just earned it.”
If any one of this year’s Mustangs truly trusted his coaches this season it was Stoner. He beat fellow senior Jhett George in a quarterback battle at the beginning of the season to earn the starting spot. Then came an ankle injury in the Oil Bowl, which allowed sophomore Harrison Taubert to finish the regular season. Stoner returned to quarterback in the playoffs but was pulled from occasional offensive drives in order for him to be better rested on defense.
Stoner subbed out of quarterback for the majority of the second half in the championship game, Taubert threw a 16-yard dime to Bertagnole in the fourth quarter for an insurance score and Stoner stayed on defense. His pick-six midway through the second quarter represented a season’s worth of work that he did on defense, in a much less flashy position at outside linebacker than that of quarterback.
Harshman and Stoner shared a strong connection throughout the season. Following the dramatic semifinal victory against Cheyenne East, Harshman told Stoner to take an extra second before walking off Cheney Alumni Field and to soak in the sights. Stoner did because he believed in the coaches from the start.
“I trust Coach Harshman,” Stoner said. “I know he knows what’s best for the team. He knows what it takes to win. Whatever he has game-planned, I’m going to go with. I trust him and just go with the team.”
Added Harshman: “Really proud of Kade, he’s been doing that for us all year.”
Having just completed his 28th season as head coach, picking up the program’s seventh championship in his tenure and his 200th career win the week before, Harshman still broke the team’s post-game huddle teary-eyed.
While all of the Mustangs’ dreams came true — they finally beat Sheridan and broke through to win a championship — there were bittersweet moments. While leading rusher Dante Wallace and heir to the quarterback throne Taubert, as well as talented Morgan Pickett, JT True and Cooper Quig all return — a destined senior class does not.
The final celebration acted as the last hurrah for most of them. An opportunity to put a bow on their high school careers and say goodbye to their trusted coaches.
“It’s the miracle of team, when you all come together and you care about the group more than about yourself,” Harshman said. “And that doesn’t always happen in life. These guys certainly did. I’m proud of them. And that’s why they’re all out here shedding big tears. Not because they won, but because it’s over. It’s not ever going to be the same.”